Pet food toppers: Can you top that?
Topping on or mixing into our own human foods is a well-accepted practice, from sprinkles on ice cream, ice cream on pie, gravy on meat, bacon on salad, layered sauces on barbecue and just about anything on a baked potato. If we can make it look, smell and taste better, and we can feel better about it, we as humans will indulge.
Let’s face it — the pet food industry follows human food trends and has been doing so for decades. As early as 1960, dry gravy was coated on the outside of extruded kibble where added water created a thicker sauce or gravy for pets to enjoy. Soft-moist strands that looked like meat were formed in rounds and available in small packets to feed alone or on top of other foods early in 1963. Consumers were encouraged to “top” or “mix” canned food with dry foods to make it more appealing, or add water or milk to encourage their pet to eat better. In one focus group I attended in the late 1980s, dry cat food consumers were interviewed to see how they fed their dry cat food. It was hard to find one person that did not mix in either canned or soft-moist food along with tuna or chicken from their kitchen.
Consumers will often hide the fact that they supplement, treat or even mix. If asked, “What do you mix with your dry food or what treats do you give?” the answer often is silence. If asked, “When do you mix other consumables in your dry food or give treats and supplements?” the answer is open and extensive. Interestingly, only 50% of consumers added water to the aforementioned gravy food even though they purchased it for the gravy.
A rapidly expanding segment called “toppers” or “mixers” has grown to improve the appeal of dry and canned foods. In the last decade, we have gone from just over 100 products to close to 1,000 today.
What is the purpose of using toppers/mixers in the main pet food?
Early in the pet industry, it was about improving intake of the main meal, expanding palatability along with creating a closer bond with one’s pet. Topical palatants were sold in shakers along with liquid gravies. Today it includes rewarding pets, adding more nutrition to the food that some feel is missing key nutrition, boosting hydration or just improving the dining experience with indulgence. Some products claim a functional improvement for joints, skin, eyes, etc. while others claim specific health support (which must be dose-related and not considered part of food). Some toppers just add color to the food while others support “great poop.”
Topper packaging comes in many forms (shakers, pouches, cans, tetra paks, bottles, frozen and SURP bags). Some toppers are air-dried or freeze-dried in powders, crumbles or whole pieces of meat, vegetables or fruits. Some are bone broths with or without vegetables added. Cans and pouches have expanded to include stick packs for cats. Some are frozen or refrigerated and some claim to be “raw” with all the potential complications of safety. Lastly, there are many pumpable liquids and oils.
Consumers see toppers as meal enhancers reminiscent of what they do to their own foods. After all, a pet belongs to their family and should have all the same privileges. Too many consumers see brown and round kibbles as boring and smelling like dog food, while canned food loaves are heavy and unappealing. Toppers add an appeal to the bond of love they experience with their pet.
What category do toppers belong in?
All these toppers or mixers are foods and are regulated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as such. They should be either complete and balanced or for supplemental feeding only. The great majority are not complete and balanced. Are they part of an overall meal daily regimen? Are they an extension of treats and snacks? Are they supplements? In general, the answer appears to be, “Yes.” However, there is greater focus on enjoyment, indulgence and personal connection with one’s pet.
There will always be the challenge to improve food or water consumption with cats in general, or with older pets or with pets given certain pharmaceutical drugs where olfaction and gustation might get compromised. Pets can get accustomed to certain aromas and flavors and become finicky in their eating. There will always be a need to improve intake because:
The most nutritious food is only good if the pet eats it
However, these extra calories are not “empty” calories that just taste great. Calories cannot be destroyed by a Star Trek laser. They must go somewhere — used or deposited. From experience, I believe consumers feed 30% to 50% more calories from treats, chews, toppers and other edibles while still giving the required calories or more of the main meal. This is evidenced by the nearly 50% of pets that are overweight with a large number classically obese. These extras could lead to the potential of an imbalanced, high-calorie food regimen. These facts cannot be ignored when exploring the many health conditions which are connected to extra weight.
A complete food in a daily feeding regimen should provide specific guidelines of use to meet ideal weight and health. This should be true of all toppers, treats, chews and any other edible product. For those consumers who want to improve their pet’s health and provide improved “dining” experiences for their pets, we must continually improve our support on how best to feed for a healthy outcome.
Briefly: Top 5 takeaways
1. Topping on or mixing into our own human foods is a well-accepted practice, and pet owners have followed suit for their beloved animals.
2. A rapidly expanding segment called “toppers” or “mixers” has grown to improve the appeal of dry and canned foods.
3. Toppers are used by pet owners to improve intake of the main meal, expand palatability, create a closer bond with their pet, reward, add more nutrition to the food, boost hydration or improve the dining experience with indulgence.
4. Toppers can come air-dried or freeze-dried in powders, crumbles or whole pieces of meat, vegetables or fruits; as bone broths with or without vegetables added; in stick packs for cats; frozen, refrigerated or raw; or as pumpable liquids and oils.
5. For those consumers who want to improve their pet’s health and provide improved “dining” experiences for their pets, we must continually improve our support on how best to feed for a healthy outcome.